From Hell (2001)

D: Allen and Albert Hughes
S: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham

Stylish, gripping film inspired by the graphic novel of the same name. The story recounts the tale of Jack the Ripper, seen largely from the point of view of the detective assigned to stop him. In this case that detective is a partially psychic, terminally opium addicted Johnny Depp, assisted by Robbie Coltrane and hindered by various suspicious and/or incredulous powers-that-be who fail to believe his outlandish theories. A change of pace in terms of setting for urban thriller specialists Allen and Albert Hughes (Dead Presidents), but essentially in the same genre, the film enjoys a degree of visual stylisation as much inspired by Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula as the comic book itself. The streets of Victorian London (re-created in studios just outside of Prague) hang heavy with an hallucinogenic atmosphere which blends the real with the unreal as befits the psychologically uncertain mindset of its protagonists.

The script combines plots from several factual and speculative studies of this notorious case, elements of which have also already been seen on the big screen. Its rumblings about the Royal Family and Masonic conspiracies were featured in Murder by Decree, although in that case the Ripper's pursuer was a relatively clean-cut Sherlock Holmes (as he was in A Study in Terror). Depp's drug-addled detective is not without precedent either (most recently take James Spader in The Watcher), nor indeed is anything much that happens in the film. The fact that it has been seen or done before is hardly the issue under the circumstances, mind you, certainly not when we know we are dealing with the cinema of the postmodern (Natural Born Killers, Deconstructing Harry). The real issue is whether or not the Hughes brothers have managed to find a way through it all and told a story with depth and meaning.

They have. From Hell is an involving film which impresses visually, technically, and thematically. Its sense of human depravity is pervasive and occasionally oppressive, but this is entirely in keeping with the timbre of the story. It begins with a caption card quoting is own Jack the Ripper, who says "One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century." This is the keynote sentiment sounded again and again in the film's depiction of a world on the brink of turning self-indulgent excesses like imperialism and classicism into genuine social evils which would result in two world wars and what was generally the most destructive century of human existence. In this context the Ripper's serial killing certainly seems prophetic, and it is made all the more thematically forceful by its links with conspiracies and conspiracy theories originating with the highest echelons of society.

Combining traditional cinematic effects with digital paintbox techniques, the Hughes have succeeded in crafting a visual representation of the late nineteenth century which owes as much to its realities as needs be but which keeps the eye consistently engaged. Its filtering of the Ripper's killings thorough the drug-addled visions of Depp's character is a useful conceit which works far better as a psychological study than similar tricks in The Cell. The links between pursuer and pursued suggesting they are opposite sides of the same coin are unsurprising from a generic point of view, but they are played effectively against a sense of social and emotional dysfunction which implicates and involves the world represented outside as well as inside the characters' heads.

The film is surprisingly tame in terms of its representation of violence. It prefers to depict acts of brutality in terms of its characters' responses, which are themselves extreme in this case. Depp's increasing sense of dementia and dislocation is matched by his visions of the execution and aftermath of the crimes. This again drives home a sense of consequence and context which makes the action less exploitative than expected (though individual sequences will still find themselves the subject of the usual criticism from the usual quarters). Some may find the characterisation of the prostitutes themselves questionable, but all-in-all the script manages to find enough nooks and crannies in the clichés to make them human enough to generate interest and sympathy.

Depp (Sleepy Hollow, The Ninth Gate) is as impressive as ever in the lead. He has been given a character ripe with quirks and habits, so he has plenty to work with, but he nonetheless registers a believable performance which holds the centre of the film on all levels. He is both a convincing detective and an authentic depressive on a downward spiral, a difficult combination which lends itself to self-indulgent histrionics but which proves substantive enough on this occasion. Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) is not quite heavyweight enough to match this, but there is a fine supporting cast (including Ian Holm and Coltrane) to keep things balanced. Susan Lynch (Nora) has the showiest role as the gruff lesbian whose disaffection with society runs even deeper than her compatriots.

From Hell is not exactly scary, but it is unnerving insofar as its convincing representation of human corruption gives the audience little to no sense of escape. No character leaves the film unsullied, and the Hughes' are to be congratulated for being able to sustain a sense of almost apocalyptic dread right through to the end. It is not a horror film in spite of how it looks though, so audiences expecting a sort of Victorian slasher film will be sorely disappointed (thankfully). Think of it more as a contemporary urban thriller in fancy dress and you will be nearer to the mark. It is nonetheless well worth seeing and will probably lend itself to repeated viewing. Its resolution is, of course, inevitable, but it is brought about with enough of a sense of social and personal irony to make it bleakly satisfying. The small amount of cop-out cheeriness they let through is excusable given just how much of the ending remains consistent with the rest of the film.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.